This is not a review of Steve Chalke’s much-debated book, The lost message of Jesus. Several helpful critiques have appeared (for example in the June and October editions of Evangelicals Now).
The bottom line is that the ‘lost message’ which the author has rediscovered turns out to be none other than a classic, liberal, social gospel, re-packaged for a twenty-first century, post-modern generation.
However, such is the following and influence of this popular communicator within mainstream evangelicalism in the UK, and so closely is he identified with the Evangelical Alliance, that EA considered it necessary to call a public debate on the issues raised.
This was held at Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Westminster on 7 October 2004, with about 700 people attending. It was difficult to judge the make-up of the audience, but it was evident from Steve’s enthusiastic reception that a large proportion had turned out to support him.
Joel Edwards, EA’s General Director, opened the proceedings by stating that the Alliance had been sent a great number of responses to the book, both negative and positive. EA was ‘committed to unity’ but ultimately truth was ‘more important’. I was less sure what he meant when he added that ‘for some, this may turn out to be a totally irresolvable problem’.
In his main presentation, Steve Chalke admitted that his views were driven by the misery and need of the desperate world he saw around him. He had never suggested he had everything sorted; and there were certainly ‘gaps’ in the book. Actually, there was nothing really new in the book at all – it was ‘all old hat’ – a claim that would not have greatly encouraged his publishers but was intended to suggest that this was all a fuss about nothing.
An extraordinary attack
Chalke then launched into an extraordinary attack on the doctrine of penal substitution, spelling out what he meant by his brief reference to ‘cosmic child abuse’ in the book. This biblical, fundamental and essential understanding of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, on which countless Christians down the ages have joyfully and gratefully pinned their hopes, was described, among other things, as ‘arrogant’, ‘repressive’, ‘distorted’, ‘simplistic’ and ‘ethically weak’.
It simply perpetuated ‘the myth that violence can be redemptive’. ‘Wrong views of the cross lead to wrong views of God’, warned Chalke. But the fact is that the reverse is far more likely to be the case. And it is Chalke’s open-theistic belief in a God whose love undermines every other divine attribute, which has led him to deny what the Bible clearly teaches.
Steve’s supporter on the platform was Stuart Murray Williams of the Anabaptist Network. He also listed his objections to penal substitution, all of which have been answered countless times in the past.
The main spokesman on the other side was Simon Gathercole of Aberdeen University. (It was his wife, we were told, who rather happily coined the term -‘Chalkegate’.)
Unfortunately, however, Simon appeared uncomfortable in a debating situation, and somewhat overawed by Steve Chalke’s rhetorical flourishes. As a result, his approach was far too hesitant and conciliatory, while his undoubted ability to demolish Chalke’s arguments from Scripture remained sadly hidden.
No slip of the tongue
Better things were to come. Anna Robbins, of the London School of Theology, is a formidable Canadian who cheered many of us with her forthright condemnation of The lost message and any dismissal of the doctrine of penal substitution.
Post-modern influences, feminist theology and an ‘a priori commitment to non-violence’ were all among the formative influences of such thinking. As is ever the case, commentators in the future will look back and remark on the blindness of those who did not realise they were the victims of the spirit of their age.
She then took the battle to the heart of Steve Chalke’s own concerns by showing that the doctrine he so detested is a vital aspect of any Christian social ethic.
During his presentation, Steve Chalke had asserted that ‘the Evangelical Alliance believes in substitutionary atonement not penal substitution’. When I queried this during the public question time, he confirmed it was no slip of the tongue.
I asked whether he was aware that the vast majority of those who had historically subscribed to the EA Basis of Faith believed they were affirming penal substitution, and whether he realised the implications of his statement for evangelical unity. He gave no clear response but admitted his was not an official interpretation.
Closing the whole debate, Joel Edwards sought to answer my question by confirming that the EA Basis of Faith certainly implied penal substitution, but whether it excluded those who denied the doctrine required further discussion.
During these comments, Steve Chalke was shaking his head vigorously. After the meeting closed, David Hilborn, EA’s Theological Adviser, sought to reassure me further. Maybe a more explicit wording of the doctrine of the atonement would be required…
The Evangelical Alliance certainly has a huge problem on its hands. I have little doubt that those currently at the helm are, personally, biblically orthodox at this supremely vital point. But what is at stake is far greater than the handling of any single doctrine.
What none of us knows for certain is just how widely and how deeply the ‘mainstream’ evangelical constituency in this country has been infected with the new form of liberalism, which screams out from virtually every page of The lost message.
What is beyond dispute is that Bible-centred believers who trawl the relevant websites are soon appalled at what they see is on the way and, indeed, is already arriving. Movements claiming to ‘recover’ Christianity from its ‘false’ doctrinal heritage are poised to overwhelm vast swathes of professing evangelicalism.
For far too many years, evangelicalism had been defined in terms of what ‘Evangelicals’ believe, rather that what the Bible says. The inclusivist approach of the Evangelical Alliance during this period has meant that, while it accurately reflects and represents much of the spectrum of those who would lay claim to the name ‘Evangelical’, it is ill placed to redraw the boundaries along biblical lines.
It is simply too late to do so now without massive disruption. Any serious attempt in this direction is likely to split the constituency into fragments. That is the unspoken fear of the Evangelical Alliance leadership. How will they respond? Time will tell. We do not rejoice at their dilemma. We will pray for them as they make immensely critical decisions.
Meanwhile, if ever justification were required for the existence of Affinity, it is provided by this tawdry book and the contrary reactions it has provoked. May the Lord continue to strengthen our united witness to his unchanging gospel – and enable us to communicate it effectively in our ever-changing would.
Reproduced with permission from Affinitymagazine; affinity.org.uk